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Biographies: Sri Simha, the Lion of Dzogchen

Sri Simha, or Simhaprabha as he may have been known, was born in a noble family in the Cina Valley of northern India. He lived during the 8th century.

The location of the "Land of Cina" has been the cause of considerable confusion for both Tibetan historians and modern Western scholars, to the extent that even Dudjom Rinpoche's The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism perpetuates the error of stating that Sri Simha came from China. Evans-Wentz, just as incorrectly, described Sri Simha as a Burmese guru. Dr. Hanson-Barber places Sri Simha in Central Asia, while Dowman has suggested that he was Khotanese. Tulku Thondup, author of Masters of Meditation and Miracles, describes Sri Simha birthplace as "a city called Shokyam on Sosha Island1 in China." None of these allocations are correct. To fully appreciate Sri Simha's background we must briefly digress into the geography of a mysterious seventh century Himalayan country called Suvarnadwipa and its southern neighbour, the Kinnaur Valley.

The Golden Matriarchy and the Land of Cina

It is little known that before the Tibetan people swept from the East into the regions of trans-himalaya, there once was a land in Western Tibet known by the name of "The Land of Women" (Stirajya). Because the rivers of this land were rich in gold, this country was also known as the Golden Land (suvarnadwipa). Yet another name for this country appears to have been the "Golden Matriarchy" (suvarnagotra).

The ancient Greeks held many myths concerning the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women, and their land called Amazonia. Dionysus was said to have encountered them on his travels to India, and supposedly Heracles successfully fought against them, capturing their queen Antiope. According to Robert Graves, the term "Amazon" may originally have been an Armenian word, meaning "moon-woman", a priestess of the Moon-goddess. Although the Greeks are said to have located the land of the Amazons in Scythia, on the Black Sea, and it is true that priestesses of the Moon-goddess on the southeastern shore of the Black Sea were known to have born arms, it remains uncertain whether the myth originated there. It is just as probable that tales of a nation governed by a line of queens could have been passed to the Greeks along the trade routes from India.

As Prof. R. A. Stein says, the Western Land of Women was "a mysterious region mentioned by Chinese and Indian authors."2 Apparently this matriarchy, with its capital at the Silver Castle of Khyunglung (east of present day To-lung) in Western Tibet, was the same as the land of Zang-zung. The latter is the Tibetan name of the land. Zang-zung or Suvarnadwipa was an ancient Indo-European nation, said to have been ruled by a royal lineage of women. This matriarchy or queendom once existed along the valleys of the upper Sutlej and the Indus rivers, from Tirthapuri, west of Mount Kailash, as far as the borders of modern Ladakh. In Ladakh itself, matriarchal lineage has been known during various periods of Ladakhi history. It is likely that Suvarnadwipa once consisted of the whole of Western Tibet and Ladakh, prior to conquest by the Tibetan people invading from the east.

Apart from gold and matriarchy, the Golden Land of Suvarnadwipa (or Zangzung) was famous for manufacturing and exporting to India a peculiarly fine wool cloth known as cina-patti, or in other words, "fabric (patti) from Cina." Thus we find in Kautilya, for example, the mention of Cina as a valley within the territory of Suvarnadwipa, from whence cina-patti was brought to India. At present this same extra-fine cloth, no longer manufactured in Suvarnadwipa, but instead in Kashmir, is known as cashmere.

Prof. Stein is vague in delineating the actual borders of the ancient land of Suvarnadwipa: "How far [Zang-zung] stretched to the north, east and west is a mystery," he says. "It seems to have dovetailed into two countries mentioned by T'ang historians as Lesser and Greater Yang-t'ung." This only confuses the matter further, since Pelliot and Tucci consider Yang-t'ung to be Zang-zung itself.

Today, the territory in Tibet that once was ancient Suvarnadwipa, is more or less a dry barren wasteland. In Sri Simha's era, however, it was apparently rich, not just in gold, beautiful Amazonian women and fine cloth, but in verdant gardens, herds of sheep and goat, and apple orchards.

The researches of Marcelle Lalou have sufficiently shown that the territory of the Indian Kailasa, south of Western Tibet (below Suvarnadwipa), comprising modern Kinnaur, was known in ancient times as the valley of Cina. Ancient Cina (or modern Kinnaur), south of the 15,400 ft Shipki Pass (known to the Tibetans as Sarang-la), was apparently a vassal state of Suvarnadwipa. In present times this extensive but isolated valley, hemmed in by the Himalayas, now belongs to India. It is pierced by a major India-Tibet roadway, originally commissioned by Lord Dalhousie in 1850. The valley is home to both Buddhist and Hindu temples.

Confusion arose when, in the 9th century, Tibetans attempted to translate, from the early historical records of the Dzogchen Tradition, the name "Cina" into their own language. By that time the Indo-European matriarchy of Suvarnadwipa (or Zang-zung) had been overrun by Tibet for more than a century. Every vestige of the land, its people and its language, had long since undergone severe changes. The name ‘Cina,' referring to the southern district of Suvarnadwipa, no longer held any meaning for the Tibetan historians. "Cina" and "Mahacina" were, by the ninth century, almost mythical places. While "Mahacina", which probably originally meant Central Asia, came to mean "China" (rGya-nag, the "vast region where people dress in black" according to the Tibetans), the location of Cina simply got lost. With time, Tibetans came to believe that "Cina" was related in some way with "Greater China" (mahacina), and therefore that Sri Simha was a Chinese sage.

The Kinnauri tribal group is in fact an Indo-European people who, nevertheless, tend to consider themselves distinct not only from Tibetans but also from their Indian cousins to the south. Homskad, the language spoken in Kinnaur, is dispersed into about 12 different dialects. Kinnauris are traditionally farmers, who adhere to a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist customs, with most villages having both Saivite Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist temples. The present culture is probably not much different than when Sri Simha lived there in the 8th century.

Scholars have also been ambiguous about the location of the town where Sri Simha was born. All that the Tibetan sources tell us is that it was named So-khyam, the meaning of which has remained until now uncertain.

So, what are the facts? Well first off, Cina—the land from whence Sri Simha came— definitely is the Kinnaur Valley, also known as the Kunnu Valley; a Himalayan district, today within India. Suvarnadwipa lay to the north of this valley, in what now is Western Tibet. "So-khyam" is the Tibetan rendering of the name "Su-gnam", the latter a prosperous village at the nine thousand foot level, deep in the Kinnaur Valley.3

And the gold? Yes, a large deposit is still there to be mined. The largest lode may be found at Shok Jalung, on the Tibetan side of the mountains, and should you possess a dream about going there to seek your own fortune, we will even give you the precise co-ordinates: latitude 32° 24,' longitude 81° 34'. There is however, at least one major obstacle for the hopeful prospector to face: the location is at 16,000 ft above sea level, and virtually impenetrable.

Now that we have shown where Sri Simha was born, let us return to the story of his life.

Sri Simha's early religious education

At the age of fourteen Simha, began the classical study of grammer, logic, art, medicine and law under the direction of a great scholar, Acarya Haribhala of the Bodhivriksha Monastery in Cina. Then at the age of 18, he went north into Suvarnadwipa to be enrolled in a collage of higher religious education.

It is said that while on the journey to the Golden Land of Suvarnadwipa, the celestrial Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who embodies the love and compassion of Buddha, appeared in a pure vision to Simha and said to him: "O blessed son of noble family, if you wish to attain Enlightenment in a single lifetime, you should go to Soshadwipa in India." Simha was certainly deeply affected by this vision, but due to circumstances beyond his control, he was not able to go to India at that time. The history of his life says that he first needed to complete his education and study the secrets of Tantra before he would be ready to travel to Soshadwipa.

Therefore, in Suvarnadwipa he received the novice vows of a Buddhist monk and began to study scripture and philosophy. At the Five Peaked Mountain4 in Suvarnadwipa he also studied all the exoteric and esoteric Tantras under the low caste Master Bhelakirti. Upon attaining the age of 20, he received the full ordination of a Bhikshu. He would remain a monk for the next thirty years.

It does not say how long Simha stayed at the Five Peaked Mountain, but while there, we are told that for a second time the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara appeared to him in a vision, and informed him that he should go to Soshadwipa in India. He therefore made the determination to go, and after about three years, when all preparations had been made for the journey, he set forth.

We know from the texts that Soshadwipa was the name of a town associated with a cremation ground called "Cool Grove", to the west of Bodh Gaya, in the heart of northern India, where the famous guru Sri Manjusrimitra is said to have resided.

Sri Simha meets his guru

At Soshadwipa, to the west of Bodh Gaya in India, Sri Simha met the master Manjusrimitra and was initiated into the teachings of Dzogchen. It is said that he served his guru for the next twenty-five years and thus absorbed the full teachings of the Dzogchen path.

"How should one practice according to the system of Dzogchen," he asked the Master.

Sri Manjusrimitra answered, "Without making the least effort, just be. That in itself is the optimal method for the Yogi who has grasped the View of Absolute-Totality."5

At the end of Sri Simha's twenty-five years of service to his master, Sri Manjusrimitra passed away. Manjusrimitra did not die as ordinary people do, but rather, while sitting in the posture of meditation, dissolved his physical body into pure light, and ascended to the sphere of Absolute Being, in what is described by the yogis of Tibet as a "Great Ascension" (pho-wo chen-po). The ancient texts define Great Ascension as a transformation in which a Yogi or Yogini dissolves the matter of the body's corporeal form into its component atoms (Lus rdul-phran-du deng, total dissolution of atomic structure into its matrix) and the mind into its own ultimate nature, thereby attaining liberation into primordial original purity.

The master Manjusrimitra's ascension is said to have occurred when he was in meditation at the great Stupa of Sitavana ("cool grove") cremation ground in Soshadwipa. Today, this cremation place is located in a lovely Sal forest not far from Bodh Gaya. On the mountain face above is a famous cave, with a small monastery occupied by Tibetan monks. Wandering yogis, both Hindu and Buddhist, still frequent the site.

After Manjusrimitra's passing, so it is claimed, Sri Simha performed meditation and prayer, calling on his beloved guru. In response, Sri Manjusrimitra appeared one last time in a fully resurrected body, within a sphere of luminosity, in the sky above the Stupa at Sitavana. In that resurrected form, so it is said, he handed Sri Simha a tiny little jeweled casket, no bigger than a finger-nail in size, containing his last testament. According to legendary history, this last testament consisted of what is known as the precious Six Meditation Instructions.6

The Six Meditation Instructions of Sri Manjusrimitra form a brief text that has been carefully preserved and passed down from one holder to the next, in the sacred lineage of the Dzogchen Tradition, to the present time. It is part of the great treasure of our tradition.

Sri Simha promulgates the Dzogchen teachings in Cina

After attaining full realization, Sri Simha became the principal lineage holder of the Dzogchen Tradition. He was a master who truly understood the inner meaning of all the Tantras.

It is also said that Sri Simha went to Bodh Gaya and extracted from the library of the Diamond-throne Monastery the Pith Instruction (Skt: upadesa, Tib.: men-ngak-de) of the Dzogchen Tradition that Manjusrimitra had previously deposited there.
Sri Simha then took the Dzogchen teachings back with him to his home town in the Cina Valley and there he settled more or less for the rest of his life, becoming a famous teacher.

The Pith Instructions of Dzogchen consist of esoteric scriptures written down by Pramodavajra, the guru of Manjusrimitra. Thus the lineage of Dzogchen-holders is said to descend from Pramodavajra (Tib: Garab Dorje), to Manjusrimitra (Tib: Jampel She-nyen), to Sri Simha (Tib: Pel gi Sengge), and then to Sri Simha's two disciples, Jnanasutra and Vimalamitra. The latter introduced the tradition into Tibet in the time of the Sage-King Tri-srong Detsen, who reigned from circa 755 to 797 AD. The transmission of the tradition has ever since been passed down mainly through the Nyingmapa school in Tibet.

It is explained that Sri Simha divided the Pith Instruction into four sub-sections, and these are known as the Exoteric Cycle, the Esoteric Cycle, the Secret Cycle, and the Supreme Secret Cycle. Before his own death he deposited copies of the first three cycles in a rock cut crypt beneath the Bodhivriksha Temple of Sugnam (Sokyam) in the land of Cina. The texts of the Supreme Secret Cycle, however, he hid separately within the pillar of the "Gate of a Myriad Blessings". It is difficult, however, to clarify as to where these places in the Kinnaur Valley may have actually been. Perhaps future archeological work in the region will help one day to give us a better insight into the facts underlying the half-legendary and half-historical records of early Dzogchen?7

It is further stated that Sri Simha conferred the first three cycles of Dzogchen instruction on Vimalamitra and the supreme esoteric cycle on Jnanasutra. This implies that Jnanasutra alone received the complete or final teaching.

Near the end of his life, Sri Simha was invited by "the King of the land of Li" to give teachings. The Tibetan transcription for the name of this king is Paljin, which roughly means "Glorious Provider". The accounts state that Sri Simha flew through the air to the land of Li, riding on the back of a white lion, shaded by a royal parasol that was held up by a group of six angels (devas) or spirit-beings (yakshas).

Most Tibetan scholars assume that the land of Li is Khotan, thousand of miles distant in Central Asia, since "Li" became the common Tibetan name for Khotan. But we know that in earlier times the Tibetan name "Li" referred to Nepal, and it is much more likely that Nepal is the place where Sri Simha would have traveled, since the latter is not such a great distance from Kinnaur, in the same Himalayan chain of mountains. What is more, the biography of the yogi-master Vajra-Humkara informs us that he met and became a student of Sri Simha in a forest grove in Nepal. Sri Simha eventually died in that land. We also know that the master Padmasambhava, who later was to enter Tibet via Nepal, was a disciple of Sri Simha.

There are various texts attributed to Sri Simha that have been preserved in Tibetan. Especially, there is an extremely esoteric and profound commentary on the Heart Sutra that is ascribed to him, which typically interprets the sutra in a non-dualist, uniquely Dzogchen manner. What is typical of Sri Simha's style is an ability to present the classical teaching of Buddhism according to its more esoteric meaning.
At his death, it is also said that Sri Simha dissolved his body into rainbow light, similar to Manjusrimitra, and that he left a last testament, known as The Seven Nails. This too has remained a vital text of the Dzogchen Tradition, handed down to the present. Jnanasutra, who was not present (he was in either Kinnaur or Bodh Gaya at the time of his master's death), is said nevertheless to have received this last testament from the hand of Sri Simha in person, who appeared bodily before him.

Such is the basic account of the life of the sublime Dzogchen master Sri Simha.


1. "Sosha Island" is Soshadwipa, Tibetan Sosha-gling, which in all accounts is located just west of Bodh Gaya, and certainly not in China. But Sokyam is not said to be "in Soshadwipa". On the contrary, it is always located in the accounts as being a town in the land of Cina. Tulku Thondup appears to have confused the term Ser-gling (Tibetan for Suvarnadwipa) with Sosha-gling.

2. See: R. A. Stein, Tibetan Civilization, Stanford, CA. 1972.

3. The name "So-khyam" does not mean anything in the Tibetan language. It is obvious a transliteration of a non-Tibetan word or name. Prof. Hanson-Barber, in an unjustified attempt to extract a Tibetan meaning from the two syllables, read "So" as the Tibetan "bso", i.e., "to spy", and "khyam" as "courtyard". Thus devising an etymology that makes no sense, he suggested that Sokhyam may have meant "garrison". In a further leap of speculation, he then connected that with Chinese references to the Four Garrisons of the West, which existed in Central Asia. However, the word "so" could just as well have meant "tooth" in Tibetan. That the Tibetan So-khyam is orthography for ancient Su-gnam is supported by the itinerary of Tagtsen Repa’s 17th century journey through the valley of Kinnaur/Kunnu. The latter mentions the towns of Namgyal (Skt: vijaya), Sa (modern Sasu), Kanam, and So-rang (modern Sarahan), as well as Sugnam itself.

4. Tib: Ri-wo tse-nga, the Five Peaked Mountain of Manjusri. The Sanskrit name is Pancasikhara-parvata. The name and location of this mountain has long been the subject of much confusion, since there is a very famous (but historically late) Five Peaks (Wu-t’ai-shan) in the northern Shansi province of China. Originally Manjusri's full name was Pancasikha Manjughosa, which means the Bodhisattva with gentle voice (manju-ghosa) who is adorned with a five crested (panca-sikha) crown. As explained by Prof. Snellgrove, "In the Manjusrimulakalpa [the term pancasikha] is then understood as a gesture of the hand, representing the power of the Bodhisattva. Later when his cult reached China, it was understood as Manjusri of the Five Peaks, and so it was assumed that he must have originally come from China of the Five Sacred Mountains. This legend even reached India, and so still later we find Indians setting out on the long journey across central Asia to China on pilgrimage to the abode of Manjusri." See: Snellgrove, Buddhist Himalaya, Oxford 1957.

However, long before the creation of the sacred site in China, the location of five mountain peaks dedicated to the Bodhisattva Manjusri already was well established in Khotan (5th-6th century), and prior to Khotan an even earlier Five Peaks existed in Nepal. Each country where worship of Manjusri developed, wished to have its own sacred site. Thus each country designated a special group of five peaks as sacred to that Bodhisattva.

The Five Peaks referred to in the life of Sri Simha is specifically said to have been in the country of Suvarnadwipa, which we know consisted of Western Tibet, in the region of Gu-ge. The Five Peak Mountain of Suvarnadwipa is in fact at the source of the river Gyanima, or Ganima, near the present day community of Gyanima Cakra. Fortunately we can locate the sacred mountain in question in the itinerary of the travels of Go-tseng-pa (c. 1240 AD), entitled rGod.ts' gNon.po. rDo-rje'i.'ong. ba. don. ldan. nor.bu'i., where he clearly describes passing by the Five Peaks of Suvarnadwipa in proximity to the sacred site of Tirthapuri. Tirthapuri is on the north side of the Sutlej to the west of Kailash and the sacred mountain referred to by Go-tsang-pa is on the south. Tirthapuri is therefore undoubtedly the location of the place where Sri Simha studied Tantra with the low-caste master Belakirti. What is more, Tirthapuri, where three great valleys converge, is well known as one of the 24 holy tantric sites of India.

5. Absolute Totality is the essential meaning of the Tibetan term Dzogchen (Skt. Mahasamdhi). Dzogchen is short for Dzogpa Chenpo, where Dzogpa means complete, all-inclusive, totality; and Chenpo means great or absolute. It is called "absolute" because nothing exists outside of it, and it is called "complete" because it is the whole totality of Samsara and Nirvana as one. It carries virtually the same meaning as Mahamudra, the Great Seal, which signifies the "seal" of non-duality. The term is frequently mistranslated in America as "Great Perfection". To speak of great perfection is to imply that there is something initially imperfect that then attains to perfection. Absolute Totality, however, means that everything is already one whole. This whole, from the beginning, is already perfect, complete and non-dual. That is the true state of Reality, which it is up to the yogi to realize.

6. Tib:, the Six Meditation Instructions, are also known as the six Diamond Verses. Vairocana brought these to Tibet in the late 8th century. Vairocana was a Tibetan disciple of Sri Simha.

7. In Tibetan the Gate of Myriad Blessings is bkra.shis.khri.sgo (pronounced Tashi Tri-go). In Sanskrit this presumably would be Mangalakotidwar. This and the Bodhi-tree (Bodhivriksha, Tib: byang.chub. shing. gi. lha. khang.) temple appear to be separate places that once existed in the Valley of Cina. It is possible however, that the gate in question was the main gate or entrance building of the first named temple, which one would presume was located in Sugnam.

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